Officials Work to Reassure Residents About Soil Contamination in Votee Park
Residents question why park must remain closed, while officials cite safety precautions
There have been no reports of illness from soil contaminants found at Teaneck’s Milton Votee Park, but most of the park will remain closed for the year, officials said at a public forum about the contamination Wednesday night.
Officials at the meeting sought to reassure concerned residents after tests showed high levels of contaminants in the surface soil, within reach of park visitors. Concentrations of benzo(a)pyrene, a potentially cancer-causing agent, above state standards were found within six inches of the surface, recent results showed.
Still, Linda Cullen, an environmental toxicity unit supervisor with the state Department of Environmental Protection, cautioned the soil contamination standards were conservative.
The stricter residential standard is based on a one-in-a-million chance of a person developing cancer by ingesting 200 mg of contaminated soil for 350 days per year for the first six years of their life, then 100 mg for 350 days over the following 24 years, she said.
“That 30 years is what we consider a residential scenario,” Cullen said. “These standards were specifically developed to be reasonable, but maximum exposures.”
Cullen said state standards also take into account “sensitive populations,” including senior citizens.
Township Health Officer Ken Katter explained he reviewed cancer mortality rates from 1999 to 2005, and found Teaneck’s rate was equal to or lower than nearby towns including Hackensack, Paramus and Fair Lawn. Katter said he also examined national statistics.
“There is no indication of an unusual cancer prevalence in Teaneck," Katter said. "Therefore there is no prevalence related to Votee Park.”
Katter said there have been no reports of sick animals, which might be impacted by contaminants before humans.
“Again, I’ve been with the township’s health department for 20 years and in that time period I don’t have one report filed in my office about anybody being in Votee Park and getting sick,” he said.
Some residents, however, asked how information about illnesses would flow to town officials from doctors, and how parents would know to alert the township of any possible health issues with their children.
Teaneck Junior Football Treasurer George Jordan asked what he should tell parents of the nearly 150 children who regularly play tackle football in the park, often getting covered with soil.
Karen Schmidt, a township public health nurse, said schools nurses have not reported any health anomalies, but parents should be vigilant and alert officials to any concern.
“You could roll around in benzo(a)pyrene for 50 years and not have any health effect from it,” said Benjamin Alter, a principal with GZA GeoEnvironmental Technologies Inc., which conducted the soil tests. “The root of exposure that we’re talking is ingestion”
John Carr, with Teaneck Junior Football, questioned why the park must stay closed in light of the apparently limited health risk.
“If it’s safe, as all you guys have fed us a thousand statistics, than what is the hold up?” Carr asked the panel of officials.
Township Manager William Broughton said officials would work to reopen some areas of the park, including tennis and basketball courts, after fencing is installed, however, no timeframe was set. Additional testing was also needed on the swimming pool area.
“Our goal, in the end, is to get the park open as early as possible while we protect the public health,” Broughton said.
Teaneck was in touch with county officials to use Overpeck Park, and other spaces in town. Although some residents have questioned if the township’s other parks could also be contaminated, Parks, Playgrounds and Recreation Advisory Board member Kenneth Hoffman said Votee was a unique problem because other parks were built from natural land.
Tests in the 40-acre park turned up widespread contamination from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, known as PAHs, officials have said. Marc Hudock, GZA’s senior project manager, said one of 50 surface soil samples turned up lead above a state guideline.
Levels of mercury initially discovered in the park were not believed to have any impact on groundwater, Hudock said.
The park was closed in December after officials learned levels of benzo(a)pyrene, polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, above state safety guidelines were found.